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Home » Culture and Criticism

DVR Break-Up: Life on Mars

Submitted by on December 17, 2008 – 4:37 AM36 Comments

USA/This is what happens when you add a show to the season-pass list almost solely because you think Michael Imperioli is incredibly foxy with the long hair and the mustache (and about the long hair: it's amazing! so shiny!) (shut up don't judge me).

It's not enough, which is a shame, because the premise of Life on Mars is pretty good, and the end of the last episode before I gave up did give me a tingle because of the phantom-caller thing going on. I almost gave it another chance, but in the end, I couldn't get past two things: the music, and the writing.

The bludgeon-esque music cue is not unique to LoM; any show that so much as goes to a flashback is guilty of over-reminding viewers of the time shift by using a contemporary song. I can't really watch Cold Case anymore because of it, I didn't like it when Journeyman did it, and LoM's music coordinator never doesn't make the clichéd choice: the song is always one a present-day viewer will recognize, never a more obscure track; it's always got on-the-nose lyrics that pertain to Sam's situation; and it's often playing over dialogue, to no point, to remind us again that it's 1973, which we know because everyone's wearing polyester flares and leather blazers and drinking on duty. The show also loves to let Sam introduce characters in 1973 to stuff that doesn't exist yet — hip-hop, high fives, you name it, someone has given Sam a strange look for mentioning it (or for introducing himself to his own mother as "Luke Skywalker" — all the references in the world, and they go to the one that's the most played out).

But I could have let that go if the writing worked. It doesn't.

It's to the ensemble's credit that it took me a few episodes to notice (with the exception of Harvey Keitel, who is bad, delivering his lines as though a PA is shouting them to him from off-camera), but the dialogue is too clever for its own good and at the same time not clever enough.

I've started watching the West Wing reruns on Bravo, and maybe it's different when you don't watch two episodes a day; the dialogue might not seem so self-congratulatory when you get it in lower weekly doses. I like the show well enough, but after a while, all the characters sound the same, all smart and righteous and self-deprecating and verbally nimble…except when one of them has to play dumb to let another one lecture on an issue for the benefit of the audience.

It's egregious at times, but usually, it gets over, because Sorkin and company do know how to keep things moving; the dialogue is frequently pompous and/or overwrought, but the pacing keeps it afloat, and enough happens plot-wise that it doesn't get bogged down. Life on Mars wants to make certain points and draw certain parallels, and sometimes you have to have your characters speechify in the service of that because you can't get it done any other way, but you can't lean on that every time, and you can't weigh every conversation down with significance, or self-conscious cutesiness. You have to modulate.

This writing team doesn't appear capable of doing that. The initial meet-cute between Sam and Maya — uch. Nobody talks like that; she's immediately obnoxious. Every interchange between Sam and Dean Winters as his father read like the S.E. Hinton version of how men talk, and the entire episode is structured amateurishly. Just once, I would like someone who has actually had a gun pointed at him come in to consult on scenes where the characters yammer on for a year and a half while aiming pistols at one another.

The show relies heavily on flashbacks to things we just saw 15 minutes ago, so that we can see Sam putting the pieces together, and we don't need it; we also don't need to see his lips moving as he figures out the puzzle of the week.

Sam also has what seems like constant contact with people he knew as an adult in 2008, and he actively interferes in events that took place in his own family. I get that it's unclear why he's in '73 or whether he can go back, but I've said it about other shows and I'll say it again — even if the characters don't know how messing with the time continuum could play out, the writers should have that nailed down at every corner before they even start.

It's not horrible; it's just that, partway through the last ep, I realized that, while I wanted to know what happened, I didn't want to have to watch the show to find out.

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  • Dan Price says:

    Sars, you should really watch the original British LoM, rather than the rushed-out remake. Trust me on this, I've seen both.

  • Siobhan says:

    If you kinda liked to show, and would like to see it done properly (though by no means perfectly) track down the British original. I started watching the US version, and some episodes were direct translations of the brit series but some weren't – screwing up the rhythm of the series. The British one was only 16 episodes, two eight ep series, and even that felt like they were dragging the premise out for ratings at times. Great acting though smooths over these rough patches.

    I will admit that in the British series the writers also try to be coy about why Sam is in 1973 – throwing in goofy red herrings when there is only one real possibility. This could be where the US writers have taken their cue. They settle down though after the first few eps from memory.

  • CurlyQ says:

    You should watch the original. You know, the British show it was ripped off from. I think you'll like it better. Plus modern day Britain is like another time, so 1970's Britain will be doubly so. Plus it has better music and it was shot in Manchester so I can identify all the landmarks :)

  • Imogene says:

    Oh godddd, Sars, you've broken my heart. Forget the US version – you saw why. Obtain the UK original and prepare to have your world made shiny and glorious – the original Life on Mars is my favourite show since Due South, which just proves how picky I am. :) Really – John Simm is your new hero, you just don't know it yet!

    I don't understand why they remade it. The original was perfect television.

    …I'm going to go add 'Life on Mars evangelist' to my resume.

  • k says:

    Oh, Cold Case. But with Cold Case, the music choice is the point. The insane troll logic of how policing works, the difference in shooting in flashbacks, Cold Case has its plan and it's sticking to it. It is all about the shallow emotional manipulation. And I love it so so much. I was at the dentist and they were playing a hits of the 80s station, and I'd been watching so many Cold Case episodes I kept expecting people to morph into themselves 20 years earlier.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @k: I still love that, kind of, the montages at the end. Cheesy! Don't care!

    I'm totally checking out the original. The concept has some pop to it, so I'd like to see it done right.

  • Diane says:

    I love your points about Sorkin and dialogue, too. I own "Sports Night" on DVD, and am the obsessive sort who watches the WHOLE series over the course of days, if I start out with one ep. As much as I love watching some of the scenes play, and reaquainting myself with the relationships, it is distractingly Writerly at times. You said the characters are "all smart and righteous and self-deprecating and verbally nimble" – and, oh so yes, yes, yes, Sars. It's exhausting, and the very thing that makes it possible – the constant push forward you mention – also makes it harder to take, outside the episode format.

    I am, however REALLY intrigued at the idea of finding the original Life on Mars, now. Is that find-able on Netflix, anyone … available on Region 1 DVD?

    @k: Cold Case is totally my go-to shallow cheese-factor show. I love the ridiculous way-too-young-to-have-been-there casting, the stunning moral relativism they indulge from time to time, the almost stubborn refusal to pay even lip service to believability or sanity … And I love, for no good reason, remembering that Lilly has in the past appeared opposite Tom "The Tooth" Cruise in "Minority Report", was in "A.I.", AND showed up in "Xena" at one time – and that she's been able to keep a straight face throughout such a wonderfully successful and egregious career.

  • Coleen says:

    I just watch Cold Case for Lilly's hair extensions, which are horrific yet fabulous.

  • True says:

    Let me be another voice to root for the Brit original. It's better than fabulous. If you can track down the unedited Beeb originals, it's worth it, but even the edited versions are outstanding. I don't want to oversell it, but I really do look at the two series of the Brit version as some of the best TV I've ever seen.

    (I have watched Ashes to Ashes, the follow up, and it's fine. I just consider the two series of LoM as their own separate thing, largely because you just can't beat the Simm/Glenister interaction.)

  • Karen says:

    Sars, you'll totally dig the original LoM. After watching it, you'll see where they were trying to go with Harvey Keitel in the US version and why it was doomed to fail. His casting, in fact, was the reason I couldn't give the US version a try at all.

  • Shannon in CA says:

    @Diane: After reading your post about Kathryn Morris, I had to pull up her IMDB page and OH! MY! GAWD! she was also in "Cool as Ice" the Vanilla Ice movie!

  • KC says:

    You put it into words much better than I could … I just keep seeing all those episodes piling up on my TiVo and thinking "It just hasn't grabbed me yet. I'd rather watch something else." Only slogged through two so far (I figure it's always good to move beyond the pilot, since they are so often not a true representation of how the show will play out).

  • Kel says:

    By all means, check out the original for John Simm and Philip Glenister. And if you like it, BBCAmerica just acquired the rights to begin airing the quasi-sequel/spinoff "Ashes to Ashes" and it's fantastic, too.

  • Margaret in CO says:

    "read like the S.E. Hinton version of how men talk"
    That is a perfectly excellently awesome description, Sars.

    I agree, as usual – the British version is way better than the American remake, as usual. ("Coupling" was, to me, the most heinous example of this phenomenon.)

  • attica says:

    Re: Sorkinspeak — I will confess fondness for it, but I'm willing to concede that several factors may be in play. 1) TWW is a decade old, and I watched it in the Clinton years, when everything in politics was shiny. (Heh) 2) I bought the first two seasons on dvd, watched 'em once, then promptly sold them on ebay, so I'm on board with the notion of an expired shelf life and that a week between eps and commercial breaks within aren't necessarily a bad thing.

    But: I always thought of Sorkin's dialogue like I do of Mamet's. His characters sound the same, too, although in a different way from Sorkin's. The similar cadences of all of the characters lend a musicality in the spoken words that is distinctive and entertaining on its own level, even as it puts a bit of a remove between it and the action. That the actors all spoke it so quickly upped the rhythm quotient.

    I fully hated Studio 60, though. Whether that stemmed from inferior writing, lesser actors botching the rhythms, or simply passage of time dimming the sparkle for me, I don't know.

  • k says:

    Really, Kathryn Morris deserves some kind of Emmy for having to do that blank stare of wistful closure at the ghostly dead people at the end of every episode over the montage of heart-tugging meaningfulness.

    I'm vaguely proud that Cold Case only makes me cry like a baby 50% of the time. But OMG, the one with the wee white girl who was friends with her black neighbor girl and she wasn't actually dead just had amnesia and was working as a waitress and then she comes hooooooooooooooooooome and her paaaaaaaaaaaaarents were so happy and it was all some stupid montage and I was crying SO HARD. I L U Cold Case.

  • phineyj says:

    This makes me sad, because the writing and music are the best aspects of the British original. I never get why they re-make shows rather than just selling them abroad. *Shudders at the horrific idea of a British remake of Desperate Housewives*

  • Two things:

    1)While I agree with you on most of the music queues, the second or third episode dug up Mott the Hoople's "All the Way From Memphis," which I had completely forgotten the existence of and which is now in heavy rotation on my iPod, so I'm grateful for that one.

    2)Don't set your expectations too high for the Brit show. It starts off wonderfully and ends just as well, but in between the show slowly morphs into an actual '70s cop show with occasional anachronisms. Other than the series finale, season two is almost entirely disposable.

  • Deirdre says:

    I watched the pilot and decided Keitel and Imperioli really don't work on network television. They need to be able to say Carlin's seven words. Also, what's-his-name's accent is almost as distracting as Dominic West's.

    The Brit version is on my list of things to see, though.

  • Joe Reid says:

    Wonky accent or not, I really liked Jason O'Mara. Not enough to stick with the show, but I'll be interested in what he's in next.

  • curlyq says:

    For those Americans who watch the BBC I have a question. For at least the first 6 months after I moved to Britain I what anyone was saying on tv (at work too!) After about 6 months I started understanding some stuff and after 6 years I'm fine, but it was like learning a new language.
    So, do you understand what they're saying when you watch British shows or do you need to have the subtitles on?

  • Josh says:

    I actually blame the overuse of pop music/montages/thematic music signalling on Sorkin/Schlamme & Co. For the most part, I thought they did it very well on Sports Night and TWW. But they tended to space it out a little and (IMHO) tended to be a little less heavy-handed about it. (And more creative, dammit! I mean, who else uses Dire Straits!)

    Now you have the usual band of imitators and schlock artists doing it in damn near every show and their choices are anything but subtle. Stupid overuse!

  • L.H. says:

    I never had any interest in Life on Mars, but Dean Winters is in it? I heart Dean Winters. That guy needs his own show. Or bring Oz back for 15 more seasons, either way.

  • Chantal says:

    @curlyq: I live in the U.S. but have worked for five different British companies in my career and often interact with Brits. I do fine talking with people in person and know a lot of the lingo. Even so, I have to watch most of my British TV shows with the subtitles turned on. Like Gavin and Stacy — I LOVE the show and Nessa is my favorite character. But half the time, I can't tell what she's saying. So I watch with the titles on so that I can comprehend and therefore, enjoy!

  • alivicwil says:

    I missed the UK version first time around, although my Mum was raving about it.

    My bf and I caught an episode on its second showing, and got hooked! We watched it religiously after that. They're advertising the US version out here at the moment, and it scares me terribly!!

  • La BellaDonna says:

    Curlyq, I've been watching BBC/British programs for as long as I can remember, and it's subtitles all the way – and that's BEFORE the programs start dragging in regional dialects. It doesn't help that British miking is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the WORST miking in the world – movies, TV, everything. It's definitely a matter of two countries separated by a common language.

  • Margaret in CO says:

    @curlyq: I love the UK ever so much, so I *love* the language differences. British slang is the best! (ie: We say "All talk, no action" – they say "All mouth and no trousers.") For more stuff like that, you can go here: or here:
    (may not be work-appropriate, but so funny)
    LaBellaDonna's right…the miking does suck. (Great observation!)

  • Robin says:

    @curlyq: I lived in the UK for two years, which was enough to 1) fall in love with modern British telly, and 2) gain a working knowledge of British slang, various regional dialects, and the national mumble (Brits tend to speak from the front of their mouth, which is rather… detrimental to articulation).

    So, I don't use subtitles, but that does mean I have to keep up a running British-to-American commentary whenever I watch 'Prime Suspect' with my fiance.

    Speaking of British TV: if there's anyone out there who has not seen 'Spaced', Netflix it immediately! (Particularly if you've sat through repeated viewings of 'Shaun of the Dead' and/or 'Star Wars'.)

  • alanna says:

    @ L.H. – I will sign that petition, my friend. Dean Winters for President Of My Television!

    Um, anyway, I have seen neither the British nor the US version of this show, but maybe I'll give the UK series a shot…

  • Mimi says:

    Oddly, I've never had any trouble with British–or any–accents, even before I lived in London for half a year. At the time, my ear was good enough that I was able to tell where (generally) people came from, even, though certainly not at the Henry Higgins level. On the other hand, I cannot for the life of me imitate anything but a bastard version of Dick van Dyke's Cockney accent, so there you go.

    As for LoM, I'm not hating the US version, though a current rewatch of the original is reminding me just how much better that one is.

  • em-dash says:

    Oh my god, Sars, run, do not walk, to wherever you can get your hands on a region-free DVD player and a copy of the UK version. You will not be sorry… it's pretty damn awesome. I tried to watch the pilot of LoM US and could not take it… I literally threw up my hands, said "That's it, I'm out, I can't do this" and walked out of the room (much to the amusement of my roommate and her boyfriend).

  • meltina says:

    Offering more thumbs up for the British version. When I heard that the Gene Hunt character was recast as Harvey Keitel, I realized that the American version was sort of doomed. Keitel tends to act too intense to pull off "blockhead cop".

    Plus, Pittsburgh in the 70s just wouldn't work like Manchester did in the original.

  • LTG says:

    I think the U.S. version would have been much better if they had used Pittsburgh, or Detroit or Cleveland or some other second-tier rust belt city. Part of the strength of the Manchester setting in the original was that it's easy to imagine the police culture being a little more behind the times than you would if it were a major capital.

  • Diane says:

    @curlyq – neat "poll" question!

    I grew up on Python, Douglas Adams and the Beatles, and have read British literature pretty much all my life. The Britcoms have been airing in the U.S. on Saturday nights on PBS for nearly 20 years, and I have long been a devotee. My family also reared me on Masterpiece Theater, and now I own "I, Claudius", "Elizabeth R", "Lillie" and "The Six Wives of Henry VIII", among other English curiosities. English in almost any form, but particularly British English (and antique British English – Glenda Jackson can make the most Shakespearean-seeming dialogue entirely transparent!), is pretty easy for me.

  • Robin says:

    I have a lot in common with my namesake up there – I moved to Britain from Canada four years ago, and I LOVE British telly. SO MUCH. (Not least because actors here tend to look like people, not supermodels.) And I have to back up the endorsement for 'Spaced' – hilarious, surreal, brilliant.

    I watched the first (British) series of 'Life on Mars', and have to admit I wasn't completely bowled over. The 'is he in a coma or isn't he?' teasers were a bit ham-fisted. But Philip Glenister is worth watching as DCI Hunt. In fact, he's now starring in a spinoff series called 'Ashes to Ashes' – set in the eighties, natch.

  • […] Not my favorite? That "Life on Mars" show. Rockford was really enjoying it for awhile, so I was happy to read a well-thought criticism of it at Tomato Nation. […]

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